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It all started like a typical morning for Fred W. Smith, a lifelong businessman who enjoys combining a hot cup of coffee with the latest edition of the Wall Street Journal. Only on this particular morning in February 2001, Smith wasn’t shaking his head with consternation because the stock market had declined or the dollar was falling. Instead he was disturbed that the most celebrated portrait of America’s most revered hero was about to be removed from the National Portrait Gallery and placed on the auction block.
It turns out that the famous Lansdowne portrait, which has been hanging in a Smithsonian gallery since 1968, actually belonged to a British lord. And if the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery could not find $20 million to purchase the painting, it would be sold at a London auction house to the highest bidder.
This proved to be a seminal moment in the life of Fred W. Smith. Always a man of few words and lots of action, Smith walked the article into the office of Steven Anderson, president of Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, to share his concerns that an American icon was potentially leaving American soil. Smith has been a trustee of the Foundation, one of the largest in the nation, since 1961, and chairman of the board since 1990.
Within days, the two men had polled the entire board, and the feeling was mutual. Although the Reynolds Foundation focused on capital grants, cardiovascular research and aging-related medical programs, the trustees also created a category called “special projects” which, in Smith’s mind, was the perfect description for the rescue of this iconic portrait of George Washington.
As discussions about the gift between the Reynolds Foundation and the Smithsonian intensified, Smith learned that the public gallery housing the portrait would soon be closed for a major renovation, one that would last up to five years. That provided a perfect opportunity for the portrait to travel, over a span of three years, to museums across the country, where thousands could see artist Gilbert Stuart’s handiwork in person. The Reynolds Foundation offered to pay for Washington’s journey, but only if programs could be developed that were especially attractive to schoolchildren. The Foundation also donated to refurbish the Washington gallery at the National Portrait Gallery, so that once he returned, he could reside in one of the most prestigious, secure and beautiful museum spaces in the nation’s capital.
On one of Smith’s several trips to Washington, he accepted an invitation from Mount Vernon’s Executive Director, Jim Rees, to tour George Washington’s home, which he did in May 2001. The Mount Vernon estate was particularly crowded, so Smith walked through the Mansion shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of schoolchildren. But rather than bothered, he was impressed—Mount Vernon had remarkable access to thousands of Americans.
It took a matter of months, but the relationship between the Reynolds Foundation and Mount Vernon grew steadily close. The Foundation became Mount Vernon’s largest benefactor of all time, committing $24 million to the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, which opened in the fall of 2006.
“I wish I could say that we said or did something remarkable to earn this extraordinary level of confidence,” noted Rees. “But the truth of the matter is, as Fred Smith became more and more acquainted with George Washington, he recognized the fact that Washington was the founder who made it all happen.”
In supporting the Mount Vernon cause, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation’s focus from the start has been education, and programs that reach kids always rank at the top of their list. Reynolds’ grants have supported teacher training programs; classroom materials; a major traveling exhibition; and a full time “George Washington Ambassador” for Oklahoma, who travels to schools throughout the state. All totaled, the Foundation’s commitments to Mount Vernon, including that of the new Library, are over $69 million.
"We’re pleased to associate Fred W. Smith’s name with a library that is devoted to the life and legacies of George Washington, because Mr. Smith himself has demonstrated such a strong devotion to George Washington,” noted Boyce Ansley, Regent of the Association. “In fact, if Washington has a bigger fan—or a more generous supporter—I’ve yet to make his acquaintance.”